Plato’s Words about Eugenics
by John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe
Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from the book The Roots of Racism and Abortion: An Exploration of Eugenics, pp. 15-16
Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived from about 427 BC to about 347 BC. His thought had a tremendous impact on all of Western culture. One of his greatest works was the Republic, in which he explored the idea of justice, and how to develop a just society. He favored a system of aristocracy, or rule by the best people.
Plato’s discussion includes military matters, and he talked about a class of people who would be devoted to guarding the society, a kind of warrior class. Soldiers should be fierce when dealing with enemies, but should not be a threat to their own neighbors. Achieving and maintaining this balance is difficult, Plato felt, and so he discussed some ideas for breeding the kind of people he wanted. His ideas about breeding soldiers are shocking, and it is possible that Plato was making fun of someone else’s ideas. But whether Plato took the ideas seriously or not, 19th century eugenicists were fascinated.
Plato noted that dogs are frequently gentle to people they know, but fierce to strangers. Dog owners pay attention to their breeding, selecting only those considered to be the best. If the owner does not pay attention to breeding, the value of the dogs—or birds, horses or other animals—can deteriorate quickly. The question, then, is whether the techniques of animal breeding can be adapted to humans, to raise soldiers. Plato found human breeding plausible, if the rulers of the society were willing and able to be deceptive, manipulating people into accepting the rulers’ plans. Breeding a soldier class requires that the rulers select the best of both sexes, and have them mate as much as possible, while discouraging mating among the inferior.
Plato’s scheme for a perfect society included not only barnyard methods of breeding humans and deception, but also promiscuity and abortion. Men and women considered too old to have healthy children could engage in sexual activity promiscuously, but any child they conceived accidentally was to be aborted.
Not all Greeks favored abortion and infanticide. Hippocrates, the Greek physician who is called the “father of medicine,” lived at about the same time as Plato. His greatest legacy is the charter of conduct he wrote for medical professionals, which was used for ages. It includes unequivocal opposition to euthanasia and abortion: “I will give no deadly drug to anyone, though it be asked of me, nor will I counsel such, and especially I will not aid a woman to procure abortion.”
More excerpts from this book:
For more of our blog posts on racism, see:
The Poor Cry Out for Justice, and We Respond with Legalized Abortion (Graciela Olivarez)
More than Double the Trouble: Another Way of Connecting (intersectionality)